On hoarding

I seem to be running across the concept of hoarding a lot lately. There are several TV programs about it, especially if you include the home organizing shows that usually uncover one or more hoarders in a messy house. Niecy Nash and her cohorts don’t usually mention the term, but it’s an underlying theme to the Clean House series.

I’ve also been dealing with hoarding more directly. One of our extended family members cried out for help when he could no longer walk through his house, and we’ve been pitching in to clean the place up and get it ready to sell now that he’s moved into a much smaller apartment. (I’ll call him Bob, not his real name.)

The trend with hoarding, at least on TV, appears to be to look for dark psychological disorders to explain why anyone would reach a state of complete disorder in one’s home life where belongings are piled up to the ceiling.

But, to re-apply a phrase from Ebeneezer Scrooge, I think there may be more of gravy than of grave here. That is, you don’t really have to look very hard to find the root causes of hoarding.

I came to realize this after laboring several days in Bob’s out-of-control clutter and then coming home to my place. We keep a pretty neat house for the most part, and we tell ourselves that we live a simple life free from the compulsive shopping that has characterized American life — at least until the Great Recession made our approach appeal to more people.

But I suddenly realized that we have an awful lot of stuff. I have less than my grandfather had in the way of old scrap metal, but he lived on a 50-acre farm. He kept every car he owned, along with every tool and most bottles and jars. There was plenty of room, and he reused a lot of it for other purposes. Did you know, for instance, that an old car makes a pretty decent greenhouse for starting seeds in late winter?

Besides, there were no landfills or public trash collection. Every house had a trash dump somewhere out back. You didn’t throw things away because there was no “away” to throw them. I can remember as a kid having the chore of taking our trash “to the gully” — and occasionally being sent there to look for a gallon jug or tin can when somebody couldn’t find a reusable one nearer the house.

And lest you think we were just trashy people, I would refer you to the collected works of no less a literary luminary than E.B. White. In several of his essays he refers to his own trash dump out back, used very much the way we used ours.

Things cost relatively more a generation ago, and they tended to be made of more elemental materials. You can cut a piece of usable steel from an old can to patch a hole in another piece of metal, for example, much more easily than wiring an electronic component from a computer into your TV — especially if you want it to work.

So we were taught that the meaning of “waste not, want not” was to keep everything because almost anything could be reused.

But a some things happened somewhere along the line. First, the prices of stuff collapsed. The first home computer I ever bought was over $3,000. Now I feel cheated if I am asked for $600 for a much more advanced model. When things cost less, we can buy more.

Second, as I mentioned, the materials we surround ourselves with became much more complicated and difficult to reuse. When I was a kid, everyone over age 8 knew how to patch a bicycle tire — you used the same patch kit your Dad used to fix the flats on the car. Now a simple nail hole sends us shopping for a new tire as often as not.

Third, we live in smaller spaces. In spite of the fact that my house is several times bigger than the house my parents owned, my lot is not as big as their front yard. And there’s just one tiny storage building, not three like Dad had if you count the basement.

And we’re stuck with the ingrained wisdom that throwing anything away is wasteful. Bob still had every pair of shoes he had ever bought. He also had all the tools and electronics, even the ones that were broken. Even if that old radio would never work again, it had transistors and wire in it. You could pull those out and use them, if you ever needed some wire and couldn’t afford to buy the 500-ft roll at Radio Shack for $5.

He had at least two of most things like vacuum cleaners or home exercise equipment. When the first one broke, he put it aside with the idea of fixing it later. But in the meantime he bought a replacement.

But when I got home, I realized I still had most of the computer keyboards and mice I’d ever bought. Even when the PC died, I’d hang onto the keyboard and mouse just in case. After all, I paid a lot for the really old ones, even though the newer ones are dirt cheap. Thanks to Bob, I cleared out all the old ones that I will never use.

The tendency to hold onto things runs in all our families, I suspect. My sister-in-law, last time I checked, still had every detergent scoup from every box of laundry powder she’s bought. They are, after all, neat little measuring scoups, and they are made of eternal plastic. The fact that you get a new one in every box does not diminish the fact that these plastic cups might be useful some day. And what if for some reason they left one out of a box? Aren’t you just protecting your ability to do laundry by hanging onto one — or a hundred?

I felt a little superior until I remembered that for years we had boxes full of old egg cartons, bread wrappers, and foam meat trays. It took warnings from health professionals that there’s no way to clean those things to get them out of our utility room.

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